The mind-gut connection is real

by | Oct 23, 2018 | Body, Mind

hands held in heart shape on belly

You may or may not know that your gut and brain are in regular conversation. Yep, that’s right, they are having a pretty much ongoing chat about what’s happening in general.  In fact, they have such a close relationship that your mental state can influence your gut function and vice versa. Want an example? Perhaps you’ve experienced ‘butterflies in your stomach’, or felt nauseous before an event? Or felt your mouth water upon seeing or smelling a delicious meal? These are all very real phenomena and because of your mind-gut connection.

Less ideal is how feeling under pressure or stressed decreases digestive function – this is because when your body-mind perceives ‘danger’ (which is what stress is from a physiological sense – see this article here), then it’s not a priority to be eating, therefore digestion suffers and you may experience bloating or heartburn or some other uncomfortable symptom.

Knowing this mind-gut link exists can help explain how feeling anxious may impact how your gut is functioning, but perhaps more significant (though not as well known) is that what’s going on in your gut could also be impacting your mental health.

Lighting a Fire in the Brain

Though the causes may be multifactorial, a key player in this situation is gut-derived inflammation. This can result from dysbiosis, which is an imbalance in your gut microbiota (the microbial life that lives within your intestines), and/or some degree of insult to the digestive tract lining – your gut ‘barrier’. Both your gut barrier and your microbiota work synergistically to support effective digestion, immune health, and overall wellbeing. However, if they become disrupted, then biochemical signals or ‘cytokines’ are released that travel throughout your body causing what’s referred to as oxidative stress in many tissues in your body including your brain.

Though many of these cytokines cannot cross what’s called the blood-brain-barrier, their presence triggers similar ‘alarm’ signals in the brain so it too is impacted by its own inflammatory processes. This sequence of events can be why symptoms such as poor mood, brain fog and anxiety occur; but for those who want a more specific example – inflammation can promote the neurotransmitter precursor tryptophan to produce quinolinic acid [1] instead of serotonin and melatonin – the former situation leading to what can most simply be described as nerve cell ‘agitation’ that can present as anxiety.[2]

Soothe Your gut to Settle Your Mind

As gut health is fundamental to all aspects of wellbeing, then any symptoms really need to be attended to — and to do that with the least guesswork then my recommendation is to see a natural healthcare practitioner who can help you navigate what may be the contributing causes for you, e.g. do you need to tweak your diet? Get some help with digesting certain foods? Heal your gut barrier? Equally, if you are struggling with stress, sleep, or experiencing regular mood problems then speak to your Practitioner about this too – there are many natural medicine solutions available, but to find the best ones for you will require assessing your personal situation first.

Is it too Early to Rely on Psychobiotics?

If you are already a fan of natural medicine, you may wonder what the role of probiotics are in this, particularly as there is emerging talk of ‘psychobiotics’ or probiotics that can impact mood. This clearly interests those who may experience stress or anxiety, so I’d say to you that the human evidence for what may be the ‘best’ probiotic strain and at what dose to help is still in its infancy, but watch this space for future research developments.

What we do know currently is that supporting whole gut health by decreasing gut-derived inflammation and increasing the diversity of the gut microbiota is a proven clinical approach to whole-body wellbeing – and this includes improving mental health.

So if you are experiencing any symptoms impacting either your mind or your gut, there’s no need to put up with them any longer. Neither should you try to figure it all out on your own. Just contact a clinical naturopath or perhaps an integrative GP who practises functional medicine and let them know what’s going on – they are best placed to work with you to find a solution for your situation.

This article was first published on the Metagenics ANZ blog.

Featured image by Alicia Petresc on Unsplash

References:

[1] Lugo-Huitrón R, Muñiz PU, Pineda B, Pedreaza-Chaverri J, Rios C, Pérez-de la Cruz V. Quinolinic acid: an edogenous neurotoxin with multiple targets. Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity. 2013;Article ID 104024, 14 pages. Available from:  https://www.hindawi.com/journals/omcl/2013/104024/

[2] Bryleva EY, Brundin L. Kynurenine pathway metabolites and suicidality. Neuropharmacology. 2017 Jan;112(Pt B):324-330. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropharm.2016.01.034. Epub 2016 Jan 26. Available from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0028390816300338

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